By Susan Vanselow
Adriana Hayes is sitting comfortably on her family room sofa. Looking around the room it’s obvious that Adriana has the touch for the beautiful. Displayed over her fireplace is a large canvas that she has painted with brilliant hues of green—a visual of the importance art has played in her life. Across the room sits her portfolio filled with projects she is working on for her art business “Made by Adri.” The accessories and special touches around the house are those of someone who so obviously has a creative and artistic flair—every single detail from the throw pillows to the pieces on the coffee table and shelves are beautifully coordinated. Adriana exudes beauty inside and out and she brings that God-given beauty into everything she touches. Looking at Adriana from the outside, you would never imagine that she has suffered a lifetime of physical limitations and pain. It isn’t until you see her walking with a slight limp with the aid of a cane that you realize that not everything in Adriana’s life has been beautiful.
Adriana was born with Spina Bifida, a neural tube defect caused by the failure of the spine to close properly during the first month of pregnancy. As a result, Adriana has endured 20 grueling surgeries on her back and legs as a result of her disease—and may be facing another one in the not-too-distant future. Some have required extensive recovery time, adding emotional pain. Without her first surgery at three months old, Adriana would have eventually been paralyzed. She spent much of her childhood in and out of the hospital going through and recovering from spine surgeries. Her doctors nicknamed her the “complications patient,” as she had one complication after another. After one spine surgery when she was nine, another complication struck. While at home recovering on the couch, Adriana felt wetness on her back. Her body was leaking cerebral spinal fluid. Immediately her family rushed her to the emergency room. Adriana was broken in body and spirit. It was during that frantic ride to the hospital that she fully surrendered her life over to Christ. “I gave my life to Christ on my way to the hospital—again. I remember feeling so sick of everything—the ongoing pain and feeling like there was no solution. I remember laying in my parent’s minivan praying to God that if He didn’t take the pain and use it for His glory, I didn’t want to live. I asked Him to take control of my pain-filled, broken-down life, and use it.”
She realized that only Christ could understand her pain, and only He could turn her emotional and physical brokenness into beauty. Each day presents itself with new challenges, but Adriana credits God for her ability to triumph over her trials, to bring beauty out of her pain.
One of the ways that God has brought beauty out of Adriana’s pain is through her art. “From as far back as I can remember, God has given me a love and ability for art,” Adriana recalls. Very early on there was a special gifting Adriana had with an ability to create and little did she know how God would use her artistic gifts for her own therapy in healing her emotional wounds and in helping others with theirs. Adriana went on to obtain a degree in fashion design from The Illinois Institute of Art–Chicago. After working in Product Development at Kohl’s Corporation, she resigned to stay at home with her daughter, and started her own business, Made by Adri—Custom Bridal Gown Illustrations in 2012. She also teaches fashion design classes at a local college, and is a busy wife to husband, Chris, and miraculously a mother to five-year-old, Promise.
Recently, JBU had the privilege of sitting down with Adriana to talk about how God is helping her live above her challenges and using her brokenness to encourage others.
JBU: Tell us more about Spina Bifida.
Adriana: When I was three months old, my parents discovered a lump on my tailbone while changing my diaper. I was diagnosed with Spina Bifida, a neural tube defect (NTD). Spina Bifida is the most frequently occurring permanently disabling birth defect. It affects approximately one out of every 1,000 newborns in the United States. My parents had known something was wrong before they actually found the lump. Every time they would lay me on my back, I would cry and cry. It was only after finding the lump and doing a CAT scan that they determined it was Spina Bifida. My nerves were attached to my spinal cord in a jumble of scar tissue and fatty tissue. This is called the tethering of the spinal cord, and was causing the lump to form on my tailbone. It had to be untethered. If not, I would eventually be paralyzed from the waist down. I had un-tethering surgery, and I came out of it with the ability to walk. Many people have called me “lucky” or “fortunate” as if to say that it is by random chance that I’m not paralyzed. I truly believe it was God’s divine intervention in my life for me to have this disease and still be able to use my legs.
JBU: Is there one surgery out of the 20 you’ve had that stands out?
Adriana: Yes, on March 22 of 2012, I had my seventh major spine surgery (my 20th overall). It’s the most painful procedure yet, and it brings new challenges now that I have a family to care for. During the surgery, some ribs were removed, as well as an inch from my spine. My spine was then fused back together.
It was my first surgery after having a child, my daughter Promise. It was difficult, because I couldn’t lift her for a year afterward. The surgery itself was eight hours long and I was in the ICU for three days. Due to complications with anesthesia, I couldn’t have any painkillers for about 24 hours. I thank God for blessing me with the great ability to sleep! The nurses were amazed. The surgery itself has not turned out just as we had hoped. I’m in more pain now. The surgery has caused me to question many things. So I have to trust Him.
One of the good things that has come out of the surgery is that God has healed me emotionally and spiritually. As a result of that surgery, the emotional pain has come to the surface and God has now been healing all of me. I’ve also met some amazing women, true pillars of faith, because of this surgery. Since my recovery was so difficult, the mom’s group at my church made me the local “mission project.” About 150 women in all took care of me and my family during this time. It’s given me an opportunity to share the amazing things God has done in my life.
JBU: How have you dealt with the stress of living with a major medical problem all these years?
Adriana: My faith has always played a big role. I leaned on God a lot and focused on His Word. My family was always a strong support, too. My mom and I laughed a lot during the hard times, because if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry! I remember my dad pointing me to Jeremiah 29:11. That verse has meant so much to me.
One thing that’s helped me is art. I’ve always had a love for it. During my recoveries, I became desperate to find something other than TV to occupy my time. I discovered my ability to draw. In the hospital, I couldn’t leave my bed, so I started to draw. I drew whatever I could get my hands on like cartoon characters on the Fruit Loops cereal boxes. The nurses saw my pictures and hung them in the Pediatrics ward. It was nice to have that confirmation, but it was also so nice to know I was helping bring joy to people.
When I was in high school, an art teacher realized the importance of using art as therapy. I did one piece that I titled, “Get Up and Walk”. It was three panels of my right leg after surgery; in flesh, muscle, and bone. It took me over 24 hours to draw. During that time I was able to process the reality of what my legs now were, mourn the loss of what they used to be, and then get up and walk on.
JBU: How did you meet your husband?
Adriana: I met my husband, Chris, during my first year in art school. It was a challenging time; I had moved to a different city for school, so I was away from my family for the first time. I found a church where I could have some stability and build healthy relationships. It was through a college group at this church that I met him. As soon as I saw him I thought, “I might marry him!” I even wrote my mom a letter saying “I met the man I’m going to marry.” A couple weeks later, Chris and I drove together to a church service project. After about a month of being friends, we began dating. I knew Chris was the one for me when he showed up at our first dinner date spouting off all this information on Spina Bifida that he had researched on my behalf. A couple of years later—just a week after I graduated—we got married. It was a whirlwind!
JBU: How has your husband supported you through your challenges?
Adriana: Chris is my silent strength. He has been supportive from the moment we started dating. He is the calm, rational, and stable one. I am the emotional roller-coaster. He keeps my “what ifs” in check and encourages me when I need it the most. If I could pick a shoulder to cry on, it would always be his. He has to take on a lot more roles than most husband’s do. I know his servant’s heart comes from his own personal relationship with Christ.
JBU: How did you decide to have a baby and why did you name your daughter Promise?
Adriana: Chris and I both had a strong desire to have children, but we knew my condition would bring challenges. Once we knew it was a possibility, we went to God constantly in prayer over the health and safe delivery of our baby. We were blessed with a pregnancy almost immediately. It was a happy time, but also a time of much prayer and faith, because there were so many unknowns and it was a high-risk pregnancy.
We named our daughter Promise after the last part of Psalm 145:13 which says, “The LORD is trustworthy in all He promises and faithful in all He does.” The verse came in one of my baby shower cards and it stayed with me. Blessing us with Promise was just one more promise the Lord was giving us. Promise knows where her name came from, so it’s become another way for us to share and remember what God has done in our lives.
JBU: Tell us about your art business.
Adriana: Living with Spina Bifida has played a key role in developing my passion for art and sharing my talents with others. In fifth grade, my mom let me subscribe to Bride magazine. I think I was the only fifth-grader who had a subscription! I was in and out of the hospital for about three years as a kid. At one point, I was on bed rest for a month, so I started drawing bridal gowns to pass the time. Now I have a bridal gown illustration business. I draw and paint brides in their wedding dresses as a keepsake for them of their special day. I love helping others feel joy through my art.
JBU: Tell us how you give back with your art.
Adriana: God has put it on my heart to take a part of my profits and give them to a non-profit organization in Milwaukee, Exploit No More. ENM is building a safe house for victims of sex trafficking under 18. God has given me this talent, so I want to use it for His glory.
JBU: How do you live victoriously in the midst of constant suffering and pain?
Adriana: I don’t always feel victorious. But God has shown me that His reality in my life is not based on my feelings, but rather knowing the truth of His character that He shares with me in His Word. Even when I don’t feel victorious, I can still stand in the knowledge that God is victorious through me. It also really helps me to try to look outside my own pain, and focus on other people’s needs around me. If I don’t, I can begin to wallow in self-pity.
JBU: What has God taught you through your pain and medical condition?
Adriana: He’s helped me view my suffering as a gift, especially these past two years. If I didn’t have Christ in my life, I wouldn’t have the desire for Him to use my suffering for His glory. He has reassured us that He will use our suffering and that brings comfort. Suffering has also helped me empathize with others on a level many people aren’t able to. It’s also been important for me to understand Jesus’ suffering on the cross. That was the ultimate physical and emotional suffering. Because of Jesus’ suffering, what was meant to be ugly in my life is now beautiful.
JBU: Recently you blogged about your “freedom” story. What is your freedom story?
Adriana: Having had so many surgeries from such a young age, I learned how to deal with my physical pain really well, but for a long time, I never dealt with, or thought about the emotional wounds. My ability to process emotional pain never had a chance to develop properly.
Around the time I was in high school, I began to cut myself. My surgeries had stopped, so the physical pain I was so used to controlling was under control. But I was left with emotional pain that I had no idea how to control. This emotional hurt was unbearable, so I began to create physical pain by cutting, to take my mind off the emotional pain. This addiction stayed with me throughout high school, into college, and even into the beginning of my marriage.
The last few years, though, God has begun to show me how to heal and process the emotional pain in my life. I’m learning that there is freedom and healing in giving Him both my physical and emotional trials.
It can still be a struggle. One night I was having such a hard time. Overwhelmed with the urge to cut, I heard the Holy Spirit saying, “You need to give this to me fully.” I laid there and allowed myself to feel all the emotional pain that was inside of me. I opened up the Bible app on my phone and on it was 2 Cor. 12:9 which says, “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in your weakness.” The verse suddenly took on new meaning. It was as if God was saying, “Let Me take it, your emotional pain. I’ll do something with it.”
I always thought about weakness from a physical perspective. But for the first time, it hit me that God can also use my emotional weaknesses. That it’s okay to feel weak and emotionally out-of-control. God’s power and light is allowed to shine more beautifully through my broken life—physically and emotionally.
I had also been battling depression which is not understood very well, but is a part of many people’s faith journeys, especially those dealing with chronic illnesses. I discovered there was a freedom in admitting that.
JBU: When did you first realize you struggled with depression and how have you dealt with it?
Adriana: I think I’ve struggled with it since high school, but I didn’t realize it. Growing up, I saw my body as being destroyed and all I could do was watch. There were years of new disfiguring incisions, new bruises, new muscle loss. This led to many insecurities about myself and also sent me into bouts of depression. My husband, Chris, strongly encouraged me to try counseling, although I didn’t see the point. I went on and off for a while. After I had Promise, I struggled with clinical depression. After my last major surgery in March 2012, it got really bad. Nothing seemed to help.
It was difficult, because part of me thought, “If I’m a Christian, I shouldn’t be depressed and need medication.” But my counselor pointed out it’s a physical thing, too. Nerves get bunched up and crossed and don’t always work how they should and it’s okay to take something to help correct it. Being on medication has made all the difference. I am so thankful. I realized all I could do was be held by God, and be thankful to be held and protected. And He’s shown me that He can use my emotional pain, too.
JBU: How are you learning to process emotional pain?
Adriana: I have had to turn it all over to God daily. Some days are really difficult, and I feel my depression hovering, like it’s going to take over. But then I hear the Holy Spirit say, “You need to give this over to me…fully give it over to me.” I allow myself to be obedient to God, and let myself feel the emotional pain, because when I am weak I lean on Him even more. I can either choose to deal with it in an unhealthy way, by harming myself, or turning to God. I’ve learned to cling to Scripture like I never have before.
JBU: How is God using your physical and emotional weaknesses for His glory?
Adriana: God has transformed my view of my illness. I started viewing my legs as a “walking testimony” of the blessings in my life. They show His glory, not my strength or greatness. Yes, they are different, but my limp gives me opportunities to share what God has done in my life.
By sharing my story, I’m showing that people aren’t alone. People may feel like they are the only ones dealing with emotional pain, depression, or physical limitations. They may be ashamed or embarrassed. But by sharing my story, God is taking my pain and showing that beautiful things can come of it.
JBU: How can women find freedom in their lives in whatever circumstances they find themselves?
Adriana: You have to realize that by the act of giving it all over to God—surrendering your pain, your heartache, and also your achievements—you will find freedom. God works through all of us and takes that which hurts and is ugly and turns it into something beautiful.
We can also find freedom by being open. Sometimes we can protect ourselves too much, and we don’t truly know what’s going on in each other’s hearts. By being receptive, genuine, and open, we can be real with each other and find freedom from what is holding us down.
JBU: Why is it important to let others help you?
Adriana: We need people to help us as we journey through the difficulties of life. Sometimes by letting others help you, you are allowing an opportunity for them to experience God’s blessings and presence in their own lives. I never want to be responsible for hindering that. Sometimes you just need to let yourself be taken care of and held like by others.
JBU: How do you live as an overcomer instead of a victim?
Adriana: I’m stubborn—if someone tells me I can’t do something, it almost makes me more determined to try it! I’ve also kept God’s promise in my heart. I know He will take all the broken parts of me and bring purpose and meaning out of it. He will help me overcome whatever struggles come up.
JBU: How have you found your identity apart from your illness?
Adriana: I’ve found my identity in Christ, because He is the only way to find true healing. I’ve learned that your identity is found in whatever you give the most power to. By constantly putting your identity in a disease, you’re looking for physical healing all the time. What happens when you’re not physically healed like me? It’s dangerous to put your identity in something that isn’t eternal. Graciously, God has allowed me to do many things despite my illness. I’m a wife, a mom, and an artist. These are true blessings He’s provided.
JBU: How has your condition shaped your perspective as a parent?
Adriana: I love being a mom, but sometimes I have extra “mom guilt” because I can’t always do everything I want to with Promise. As parents, we try to protect our kids from hurt and pain, but we have to remember that God uses pain to help our kids build their spiritual muscles. We can teach our kids that when we are hurting, we can turn to Him.
I always appreciated that my parents never sheltered me from trying new things, even though I was limited. I think they knew that pain and failure show us our frailty as humans, and ultimately, our need for Christ. My parents gave me those tools, and I try to give those same tools to Promise.
JBU: How is God giving you purpose in your pain?
Adriana: I’m now facing another possible surgery. The endless appointments, phone calls, and paperwork can be exhausting on top of dealing with all the pain. God knows when I’m becoming weary and He’ll give me little “pick me ups” to remind me that He’s in this. This interview is one of those! I know He’s reminding me—again—that He is using my suffering and bringing something beautiful out of it. It’s all a picture of the suffering that God has turned into my greatest blessing!
Adriana has a heart for talking with others in pain. You can contact Adriana at email@example.com
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